One of every two American's is poor. One in TWO. In the housing project where I grew up, I would have put that figure at five in five. In our specific housing project unit, headed only by our bed-ridden mother, three out of three children went to bed hungry, especially at the end of the month when the Aid to Families with Dependent Children money (welfare) had long run out.
But something else sometimes happened at the end of the month in our New Haven housing project (New Haven is NOT one of America's 20 most generous cities, BTW). I can clearly recall times when Dorothy Winfrey or Arlene Haggerty would show up on our doorstep at the end of the month with an extra casserole or a hot pot of stew. We never asked for anything from the neighbors and they never asked for anything in return. We were all on intimate terms with suffering and they were simply answering the call of their own rich, generous hearts. Suffering knows suffering.
Altruism Begins at Home
Children born healthy to caring, attentive parents almost universally begin developing a generous heart. It’s viable and measurable by 15 months (I would bet it begins in utero, but we haven't developed ways to measure and test that theory yet). But something happens between then and the time children grow up to be bankers and captains of industry and contract one of the six billionaire’s diseases. Steve Jobs contracted one. I won't go so far as to say that dismantling much of Apple's charitable giving when he resumed full command in 2000 played a role in his recent death. But that kind of response seems more than a little disconnected from the heart.
Zell Kravinsky, on the other hand, was the opposite of disconnected. A successful real estate developer, Zell gave away his entire 45 million dollar real estate fortune to charity. Because that giving felt so good to Zell’s heart, brain, mind and body, he began looking for other ways he could express the freedom of a generous heart. He challenged his own fearful thinking, did the requisite research and discovered that he, and all of us, have an extra kidney that we don’t really need – when they fail, kidneys always fail in pairs – and one is all any of us needs to adequately perform its necessary exocrine function. An evolutionary design flaw? At any rate, Zell anonymously donated a kidney to a needy donor. After he donated his first kidney, Zell's brain apparently began generating so many endorphins and so much dopamine and oxytocin that he started making preparations to donate his second kidney, willing to go on dialysis for the rest of his life!
Not all giving is good giving, of course. I know that much of mine, like Bill Gates's, has mixed motivations. For one thing, the research is unequivocal: giving is good for the brain. I almost always get something back from giving. But I also have a bias that often gets in my way: me. Me and my do-good heart-brain bent on relieving suffering in the world. Too much ego sometimes in thinking I know what’s best for people, and if they would only take my advice and my gifts, we would all be so much better off. That’s pretty unskillful, as I’ve had more than a few recent opportunities to learn. But it's a challenge worth taking up and making mistakes with, especially when I stop denying that I (and probably you as well) am living better than 95% of the rest of the world. (Half of America's 1% reputedly don't even realize they are in that demographic! How out of touch with the rest of the world is that?).
Nevertheless, as this recent NY Times article suggests, some kinds of giving can border on the pathological. Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan offers one possibility of selflessness gone awry when she identifies altruists who steadfastly believe: “I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological.” A more self-aware perspective probably works to take a bit more of the “I” out of altruism.
Here’s a reasonable guideline for a charitable heart, I think: give people what they ask for and maybe a little more. Maybe. Most people, on some level, know what they need and what they can handle. They will tell you if you ask them and you make it safe for them to tell you. And often it's not anywhere near what a truly generous heart is often more than ready to offer. Sad, but often true. Frequently what people need - especially the people closest to us - is something very inexpensive and plentiful indeed: our fullest, deepest, simplemost presence.
As for Zell Kravinsky, friends and family provided that presence and helped him correct the radical right brain imbalance that a generous heart can often produce. He elected not to donate a second kidney and go on dialysis. Instead he went back into real estate and now gives half of everything he earns to charity. Before enlightenment, there's buying and selling real estate and donating kidneys. After enlightenment, there's buying and selling real estate. Oh, and he also occasionally operates outside the law by brokering cash deals between kidney sellers and kidney buyers. My kinda road-less-traveled-by guy.